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2008

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The Unclaimed Dead
Joy Hensley

The dead girl lying naked on the counter of the workshop watched Ahmad Mohammed Hussein as he hopped around the room on his only remaining foot. He felt self-conscious with the girl’s presence. It came from the childish look in her eyes; the innocent, unforgiving way she looked at him. He pushed the button on the camera. When the snapshot squeaked its way out the front, he shook it to quicken its development. Then he studied it closely, making sure her face was clearly visible before writing his notes and sliding her photograph into place in his album. Number one hundred ninety-seven—he had been doing this for too long.

“You must have been quite pretty.” His hand went for just a brief second to her shaved head. “What must you have looked like in your prime, dressed for prayers?”

Her eyes looked like shattered glass. There was no focus in them but a sharpness he could not escape. He wondered what those eyes had seen in the moment of the explosion. Had they seen blood fly across the sky? Had her ears heard the screams of her countrymen dying? In his mind, even five years after his own experience with a suicide bomber, he still heard the screams and saw the blood. Would she be tortured with it for eternity as he was?

Her skin was already fading from the dark brown of his desert people to the crystal blue of the dead. As he filled a bucket with warm water he tried not to hate her. He knew that to hate the dead was surely a crime worse than any he had ever committed. But he knew the things this girl had done. He knew how many of her country men she had killed. They had told him when he arrived to pick her up. It had been the most deadly suicide bombing since the war started.

He was not surprised that she was unclaimed. Her parents would risk death if anyone found out. Would he have the nerve to show up to identify his son if Tarik had carried a bomb in his backpack and walked down a main street of Baghdad?

He turned and, holding the bucket in both hands, hopped back to the counter where the girl lay in wait. Ahmad moved slower these days but he did not complain about that; there was no point. The only complaint he made was that Allah had not taken him long before this day. He lived with the guilt of survival, knowing others had died while he still walked the streets. He had tried to save someone five years ago—a girl. He remembered holding her sticky, firm intestines inside her body before he was pulled away and taken to the hospital.

Even after he lost his foot, the doctors were surprised at his progress. They had promised nightmares, cold sweats, suicidal urges. Yet he had experienced none of that. After learning how to walk with his cane, the only emotion he felt was obsession. He searched, every week, for the little girl among the unclaimed dead—those whose parents, spouses, or children would not claim. He needed to find her, to lead her on her path to Allah.

He prayed, now out of habit rather than faith, that he would find her, give her rest, and that finally the light would seep out of him. He longed to fall into a deep sleep from which he would wake to see his Baghdad again in its prime. Her golden spires sparkling in the clear desert sun unblocked by the dust of explosions brought by the Americans who had, he felt, truly ruined his city, and his life. Men would scream from the minarets, seeking a way to get closer to heaven, calling their brothers and sisters to prayer.

But their god had deserted them long ago. Proof stood before him every day in the mothers and fathers who screamed and hurled rocks at him, unable to stand still, held captive by the power of their grief. Grief had pushed all of them towards unimaginable actions; he could not deny he understood the revenge they sought. He carried the scars from such revenge.

He took the sponge from the bucket and began wiping the girl’s body. As he cleaned away the caked mud, he glanced down at the one foot she had left. The right leg had been completely destroyed. She wore a sandal on her left foot and he wondered absurdly whether or not she got rocks under her feet as she walked. He washed her leg, his hand grazing the stubble of hair that had grown back before she died. She looked too young to have taken her life and twenty others’.

Many bodies had lain on Ahmad’s countertop in the past months; he was no longer embarrassed by naked flesh. The unclaimed dead deserved respect as well. He took the girl’s hand in his and caressed the muscles, stiff with death, as he mumbled comforting words to her spirit to let go, trying to unclench her hand so he could clean the dirt out from under her fingernails. The hand finally relaxed and the fragile sound of something hitting the floor of his workroom broke the silence of the afternoon.

“Well, then,” he said, mostly to himself, but not without looking in the dead girl’s eyes as he bent down slowly to lift the trinket off the ground. “What have you let me see, dear child?”

The necklace he picked up sparkled. How it had escaped being caked in mud after the explosion he was not sure, but something had made the dead girl want him to see it. He turned on the overhead light.

“I am sorry for the light, dear, I will turn it off as soon as I have a look…”

Ahmad blinked. He looked at the necklace and blinked again. As he studied it he realized he knew this trinket. He had seen it and held it in his hands before. He had gotten it for his wife the morning the bomb had exploded when he had lost his foot. He knew every curve of it, the slope of the horses golden flanks, the spray of the mane and tail as it stood, forever frozen in a gallop.

He put the trinket aside before turning the light off again. Now only the setting sun illuminated the dead girl’s body. Moving to the girl, he picked up the sponge and rubbed at her belly urgently, cleaning the caked-on mud off her skin. He saw the scar he knew would be there and put his shaking hands against her stomach. He remembered, now, how her intestines felt, sticky and wet, rigid with death as he held them in his hands, trying to push them back into the protective shell of her body. He smelled death as it had folded itself around them in the street. Crying out to Allah to save the little girl, he had offered his life in exchange for hers. Comforting words, and a trinket meant for his wife, were all he had to give this little girl dying in his arms. He described the trinket to her as she tried to catch her breath. Every curve of it, every sparkle of gold. He had spoken quietly, and the girl had smiled. As all little girls, she loved horses. She had looked at him with the eyes that now, staring at him, held no remorse for the lives she had taken, that sparkled with joy even in the days after her death. He had finally found the little girl who had smiled sweetly to him despite her fear.

And now, after all these years, he knew he had saved her life. His hands shook as he looked at the dead girl on the table in front of him. She was alone today, as she had been before. Where were her parents? Why had they left her so alone, so desolate, determined that the only way to live was to kill those around her.

“Oh, Allah!” He cried to a god he no longer believed in. “Why? Why have you brought her here? I prayed for the life of this girl as I held her in the streets. I prayed and I prayed and now I know that in the aftermath of that horrible day, you answered me. If I had not given her the strength to live, would she have died anyway? Would her parents have claimed her years ago if she had died in the streets instead of leaving her alone as they do now?” One question, the one he yearned for the answer to, stayed unspoken.

Ahmad’s heart broke as he straightened up and wiped his eyes, too tired to continue his work. He longed for the peace and quiet of a retiree’s life, but knew, looking at the dead girl before him, thinking of those still waiting in morgues across the city and those who were planning still, that peace would be a long time coming.